Indian and White
In the History of the Northwest
Part II, Chapter 6
By Holice and Pam
Extra special thanks to Holice B. Young for transcribing this book. The excellent work she does continues to help many researchers! Thanks also, to Pam Rietsch, for sharing her books with genealogists!
MISSION OF HELENA. LAST CHANCE.
Four miners had been "prospecting" or searching for gold here and there in this neighborhood, but with no other result than that of a few "colors." They were on their way back to Alder Gulch when they concluded to test the spot on which Helena stands today; "That little gulch on the Prickly Pear," they said to themselves, "is our last chance." Whence the name of "Last Chance Gulch" first given to the place.
The four knights of the pick and shovel, July 15, 1864, were camped where Wall Street runs at the present day. They sank two holes to bedrock, one on each side of the little creek, and took out not only colors, but several nuggets, each about half a dollar's weight; and the gravel prospected well all through, from the very surface. There cold be no mistake about the find.
The first cabin, of one room, was built here about the middle of September. In October, some 200 men were already in the new camp, and during the winter of 1864-65, one hundred and fifteen cabins were erected. The new town came by the name, Helena, October 20, 1864, at a meeting held for the purpose. We are told that the name was adopted "after several motions and ballotings"; but what really led to the choice has never been clear. The following from Col. C. D. Curtis, an old-time Helena citizen, is the only explicit statement which we have been able to find on the subject:
Helena was named after the air Helen of Troy; hence it should be pronounced
"Helen-a; after a darling, dizzy dame.
The richness of Last change, and other gulches in its vicinity, soon brought hither a large number of people; and from its humble beginnings Helena has steadily grown to the appearance and pretensions, if not quite yet to the dimensions, of a metropolitan city. It has been the capitol of Montana since 1876. Its log huts have been replaced by large, handsome and palatial structures in brick and cut stone, and with appointments, comfort and elegance not always found in older and much larger communities. It is beyond doubt that the most substantially built city between St. Paul, Minn., and Portland, Oregon. It has today a population of about 14,00 souls, fully one-fourth being Catholics.
The cleverness, pluck, enterprise and public spirit of her citizens, no less then their frank, kind and generous dispositions, have given to Helena the prestige, intellectual, social and commercial, that has won her deservedly the title of the "Queen City of the Rockies."
Sometime previous to the discovery of Last chance Gulch, gold had been found some twelve miles northwest, on what still goes by the name of Silver Creek, also on the Prickly Pear, and likewise some eight miles east of Helena, at a place called Montana City, and in several other localities in the neighborhood.
The first Catholic services in the immediate vicinity of what shortly after became Helena, were held at Silver Creek in the all of 1864 by Father J. Giorda and Father F. X. Kuppens, while on their way to Sun River or St. Peter's Mission from the west side of the Range. The two missionaries arrived at Silver City October 30, and stooped at Jake Smith's, a son-in-law of Bill Keiser or Buffalo Bill. There that evening Father Kuppens said the rosary and night prayers in English, while Father Giorda had evening devotions in the Indian language for the benefit of a number of Indians who were encamped in the vicinity.
On the next morning, the Feast of All Saints, Father Kuppens said the first Mass for the Indians, to whom Father Giorda gave an instruction in their own language. Services were had also for the whites, Father Giorda offering up for them the Holy Sacrifice and preaching a sermon in English. At this
time, Silver City was the seat and principal center of the County of Lewis and Clark, then Edgerton County.
About the latter part of November, Father Giorda set out from St. Peter's Mission for Virginia City, where he had planned to spend a couple of months administrating the comforts of religion to the many Catholics in that large mining camp and its vicinity. He crossed the valley a little below the present site of Helena, and stopped at Montana City, some eight miles east of us, and there the next morning said Mass in the cabin of Adam Crossman, now deceased. Proceeding on his way, he went as far as Jefferson City or thereabouts, stopped overnight and celebrating mass the next morning at Dominic Freiler's. Shortly after leaving the last stopping place, he learned from some miners coming from Alder Gulch that there was a priest in the place who attended to the spiritual needs of the Catholics. Exceedingly glad at the good news, Father Giorda thought it no longer necessary to go on to Virginia City. He therefore crossed over to Deer Lodge Valley and went to spend the winter at the Mission of St. Ignatius.
About Christmas, Father Kuppens revisited Silver Creek, and selected a site for a small chapel, the spot chosen being about a mile and a half from the town, as most of the miners had their cabins along the upper part of the creek. Father Kuppens hauled the first log for the building. The chapel was of hewn timbers and measured only sixteen feet by twenty. It was first used about the following Easter, and served its purpose for a little over two years. The place had a Congregation of nearly one hundred people, who were attended once ina while from St. Peter's Mission.
On one occasion there occurred a miners' stampede, and for a while silver Creek remained almost deserted. Improving their chance, some unscrupulous persons "jumped" the little chapel and held it as if it were their own. The miners returned and with revolvers and rifles were about to dislodge the intruders when, just in the nick of time, father Kuppens arrived on the spot. Better counsels prevailed and sometime after, the
occupants vacated the building of their own accord. On the placer diggings being worked out and abandoned, Mass was said occasionally, at Silver City, in a store. The little chapel, later on, was pulled down and used for firewood.
In this missionary excursion, made in the winter of 1864065, Father Kuppens visited also the other settlements and mining camps around, including Montana City, Jefferson and Boulder Valley. Last chance or Helena had come into existence only a few months before. The Father passed through but held here no services on this occasion, the place being too new. After the rounds just mentioned, Father Kuppens returned to spend the rest of the winter in St. Peter's.
After Easter, 1865, he was again on the field, and came over to Helena. The spot where the Holy Sacrifice was offered up in Helena for the first time, lies between what are today State, Wood, Warren and Joliet streets, close to the corner of State and Warren. The church for the occasion was a log building not yet finished. Poles, intended to be covered with mud, formed the roof, but the structure had as yet no window openings of any kind. Still, as the spaces between the logs forming the walls were unchinked, there was no lack of ventilation.
Subsequently, both Father Giorda and Father Kuppens said Mass several times and in several places in Helena, namely, on Water Street, on the upper end of west Main Street, in W. Flemming's boarding house, which stood on the east side of Main, not far from Parchen's corner, and lastly, on Broadway, a couple of doors above the present Herald Block.
There stood on the spot last mentioned, a log cabin, the dwelling of Charles Leath and wife, wherein Father Giorda held services for several days late in the fall of 1865. Two rough boards were nailed together to form a good-sized cross, which was fastened to the gable of the mud roof cabin, facing Broadway. By means of that sign our Catholic people soon knew that they had a priest among them, and that, at least for a few days, they could near Mass and receive the Sacraments in this temporary chapel.
When Father Kuppens visited Helena in the spring he had made the first move toward securing, on what sometime after became known as Catholic Hill, a site for a church. He had
then started on his missionary rounds and visited in the summer and early fall Virginia City, the Salmon River mines and other white settlements, and having crossed the Range, he had visited also Carpenter's Bar, Blackfoot and McClellens Gulch.
He had returned to St. Peter's whence he was summoned on a sick call to Diamond camp, where a daughter of (J. P.)? Sullivan, a girl about sixteen, lay dangerously ill. He made the trip from Sun River to Diamond City in one and one-half days' ride, arriving in time to give all the last comforts of religion to the dying girl. To give the miners in the camp the opportunity of hearing Mass, he remained over Sunday. He then set out on his return to St. Peter's going by Cave Gulch, and stopped overnight in the house of Henry Whaley--now of Missouri Valley--where he also said Mass on the next day.
With the closing of St. Peter's Mission, as related in Part 1, Fathers Giorda, Imoda, Kuppens, and Ravali had moved to the west side of the Range. Three days after they had reached St. Ignatius there arrived at that Mission a special messenger from General Meagher, with the urgent request that either Father Giorda or in his stead Father Kuppens with power of attorney, should go to Helena without delay, for the purpose of conveying to the U. S. Military Department the old St. Peter's site on the banks of the Missouri River. In compliance with General Meagher's request, Father Kuppens received directions to return to the east side of the mountains, and made the whole distance from St. Ignatius to Helena, nearly 200 miles, in less and twenty-four hours. He thence traveled with General Meagher to Fort Benton and to the mouth of the Judith, where a military post, Camp Cook, had been recently established.
On the way to the latter place, the monotony of their journey was relived by an unlooked-for adventure, not altogether pleasant. The boat on which they were making the trip down the river was wrecked and both General Meagher and Father Kuppens had to blindfold their mounts and swim shore. One of the relics of the wreck, somehow, found it way into this city, where it has been often seen and heard to the present day. It is a little silvery bell that in the past years called out Catholic
people to divine services, and which still continues on duty summoning our youngsters--though not always welcomely--to their tasks on school days.
It is to be taken for granted that General MEAGHER and Father Kuppens traveling together talked over church matters, that is, the urgent need of a church and a priest both at Helena and Virginia City. It is certain that after returning from Camp Cook, or thereabouts, General Meagher--whether alone or together with Father Kuppens, we cannot say--had staked off on the hill overlooking the gulch on the east side a piece of ground for a Catholic church, the very spot picked out by Father Kuppens a year or so before. This is placed beyond doubt by L. F. La Croix, who states in his paper, Early Catholicity in Montana: "It was known that apiece of ground had been staked off by governor T. F. Meagher for the church."
With the return of General Meagher and Father Kuppens from their northern trip, the project of building a church in Helena was discussed, the sentiment in favor of such a move being very favorable. After a short time, John M. Sweeney--gone since to his rest--received the contract for a frame structure 22 feet by 60, to cost in the neighborhood of $2,500. We are told that there were numerous bidders for the contract, but "the award was made to John M. Sweeney, who desired the work not for the money he could make out of it, but that the might gladden his old mother's heart by building a Catholic Church."
The church was to be erected on the crown of the hill, the spot selected and staked off by both Father Kuppens and General Meagher. Apart from the view, however, there was little in favor of the location, the place being a stony pile and bristling all over with sharp, pointed rocks, with scarcely space enough between them to set one's foot. But, "Never mind the rocks," said Father Kuppens to someone who objected to the site on that very score, "that rocky hill will yet bloom as a garden of roses." Spiritually, and in part materially also, it has come to pass.
A committee was now appointed--L. F. La Croix being one
of the members--- to stake off the place where the church was to stand. Ewing Street south of Broadway had not yet been opened at this date, and the committee found their way to the hill barred by a fence that ran along the south side of Broadway. On being told that the ground being enclosed belonged to Judge Wilkinson, the committee called on him, stating that the Catholics of the city were ready to build a church on the hill, but access to the site selected was blocked by his fence. "Taking in at once the situation and not giving time to the speaker to finish his speech, the Judge said: 'Is that all?' and with an axe he demolished the obstructing fence for a distance of about seventy-five feet and stopping to take breath, he said: 'Now you will have free passage to your church.'" The generous act is indeed worth recording in grateful recognition, the more so, because the Judge was not a Catholic.
In the meanwhile the leading Catholics of the town drew up and signed a petition to Father Grassi, now Father Giorda's successor, earnestly requesting that two Fathers might be stationed at Helena for the spiritual welfare of that new and growing community. The original, dated October 10, 1866, is preserved in the archives of the Missions, and among its signers appear the following: John C. Curtin, Helena's new and worthy mayor, J. J. Blake, J. M. Cavanaugh, J. T. Sullivan, Neil Sullivan, J. P. Tiernan, M. D., J. M. Sweeney, J. M. Mays, W. Bradwell,. J. G. Hughes. They gave their petition to Father Kuppens, who was about to return to St. Ignatius, and requested him to place it in the hands of Father Grassi. He consented to take the petition along, but playfully remarked that, most likely he would get a good roasting for doing so.
Whether he got a scolding or not we cannot say, but this we do know, that the request of the petitioners engrossed the serious attention of Father Grassi. He discussed, consulted and deliberated over the matter for a good while. But he finally resolved to accede to the request, and as the Catholics of Virginia City were no less eager than those of Helena to have among them a resident priest he concluded to grant the wishes of both places. Accordingly he assigned Father F. X. Kuppens
and Father J. D'Aste to Helena, and Father J. A. Vanzina to Virginia City, the latter to be followed by another priest, as soon as practicable. Writing at the same time to the Rt. Rev. James O'Gorman, the Bishop of Omaha, to whose jurisdiction belonged the two places in question and the whole of Eastern Montana, Father Grassi laid before him the facts that had led to the opening of the two Missions, and submitted his action to the bishop's approval. The Bishop not only sanctioned the Father's course, but expressed his great pleasure and gratification for what Father Grassi had done in behalf of the Catholics of Helena and Virginia City.
The three Fathers assigned to missionary duty among the whites arrived in Helena the last days of October, and as the church had just been finished, they had the opportunity of opening it on the Feast of all Saints. thus, the Helena Mission may be said to have been formally inaugurated November 1, 1866.
Father Vanzini stopped over to assist in the opening services, and the new church was blessed and dedicated under the title of the "Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary," which had been suggested by a Catholic gentleman who is to this day a leading member of the congregation. By the following Sunday, a small melodeon or reed organ--one of the very first brought into this part of the country--had been secured, and from then on the singing of the divine service by a select choir of local talent became an attraction of the little church on the hill.
At a meeting of the congregation held shortly after, November 4, a resolution was adopted by which all rights and title to the church building and lands in their possession were
Conveyed tot he Society of Jesus. The Resolution was subsequently ratified by the Rt. Rev. J. O'Gorman in a letter to Father Grassi and is in file among the Mission's early records.
The first dwelling place of the Fathers in Helena were two small rooms in the rear of the church, one of them serving the double purpose of sacristy and parlor, and the other a study. Their sleeping accommodations consisted of two berth-like shelves, one above the other, in a blind corner screened off partly by a thin partition and partly by a curtain, the whole thing looking very much like a clothes-press. As to their meals, they took them when and where they had a chance to do so; now sharing the hospitality of some of the miners, now eating at some of the boardinghouses down in the gulch, but more frequently being the guests of Neil Sullivan, the proprietor of the St. Louis Hotel, and proverbially the most hospitable of landlords.
About a year later, the Fathers left their first abode and moved to another, on the east side of Ewing, just across the way and opposite the church. There stood here a building previously occupied as a printing establishment by the editors of the old Gazette, Judge Wilkinson and Peter Roman. The structure was unique and a real novelty, being built partly from weather boards, and partly with pine slabs, standing upright. One half of the "shebang" was roofed with boards and the other half with earth or clay, while rough planks made the floor. But, after all, it afforded the lodgers room enough to breathe and stretch their limbs. The Father bought the premises in the winter of 1867-68, and lived there for some time, that is, till they returned for a short while to their former quarters in the rear of the church, and then moved into the new residence built by Father Van Gorp. This was a four-room cottage with an annex fro kitchen and dining-room, having under the annex a small cellar, dug out of the solid rock by Brother P. Megazzini. It stood on the now vacant space between the Bishop's House and the Pro-Cathedral. The funds to purchase the lot and adjacent parcels of ground were furnished through the kindness of Charles L. Dahler, of Helena. .
But we are anticipating. Let us take up some previous happenings to complete this part of our narrative. A few weeks
after the Fathers arrival in Helena, Cave Gulch became the scene of a serious and most lamentable disturbance.
A dispute over some mining ground had divided the camp in two desperate factions and, as a consequence, several strong, sturdy men were sent into premature graves at the hands of fellow miners. Father Kuppens hurriedly summoned to the camp, now turned into a battlefield. He swam across the Missouri and reached the spot while the survivors of the two factions were still firing at one another. Five of the dead, namely, Dennis Murphy, John Hassard, Thomas Chevers, Patrick Osborn and Michael McLaughlin, were brought to Helena and buried from the little church on the hill, the first four on December 16, and the last mentioned on the next day, December 17. They were all buried in the old cemetery east of Dry Gulch, which Father Kuppens secured and opened on this exceedingly sad occasion.
Four days before, namely, on December 12, had taken place the first funeral from the same church, it was that of Patrick Seary. But, as appears from the Book of Internments, he was laid to rest in the common city cemetery, where as the five others mentioned above, as it is stated in the same book, were buried in the Catholic Cemetery. These are the first burial on record in the books of the Helena church.
The fear that if located on lower ground, the miner's pick and shovel might disturb the dead in their last resting places, had led Father Kuppens to lay out the cemetery high up on the hillside of Dry Gulch. But the location proved unsuitable, that is, too rocky for graves, and too difficult for access in winter. Hence another cemetery site was selected west of town, on that part of the slope of Mount Helena, where Last Chance Gulch opens out toward the valley. But we have found no record of anyone having been buried in that locality.
The present cemetery, a four-acre lot, was donated to the church by Mr. and Mrs. Bruno Ferrerro, frequently Americanized by many into Brown or Farrell. It is a fraction of forty acres which they had secured by pre-emption, disposing of the remainder, later one, to other parties. Bruno Ferrerro and his estimable wife, who is a convert to the faith, are of the number of those true, loyal Christians, whose lives are very exemplary,
and whose highest honor are their God-fearing children walking after them in godliness and virtue.
About this time of our narrative, the little church on the hill received, as it were, an Angel's visit in the person of a German priest, a nobleman, by name Graaf. He left to the church a supply of alter linen, some vestments, a chalice, a monstrance, alter boys' cassocks, and surplices, and a variety of devotional objects. Some of the valuable articles donated by the strange visitor are used to this day in the divine service. the object of his coming has ever remained a mystery, and no one seems to know whither he went after leaving this part of the country.
The district of the Helena Mission extended over a very large field; it included the valleys of the Boulder and the Missouri, Diamond City, Crow Creek, Bozeman, Fort Ellis--established at this date--the Gallatin Valley, Beaver Creek, silver city, sun river, and Fort Benton, and a number of other settlements and mining camps, north, east, west and south. All these places were visited, more or less frequently, according to the number of Catholics they contained, and their distance from Helena.
The Fathers traveled at first mostly on horseback, this being the easier, and often the only way to get to the different camps and settlements. But it had its drawbacks, especially because of their being obliged to take their chapel along with them.
Whenever feasible they would travel by coach to this or that point, whence they would be brought over the whole neighborhood by some of the settlers. Later on, however, when it was possible to do so, they traveled by private conveyance as decidedly preferable, and far more convenient. They could thus easily carry with them whatever they needed, and stop when and where their priestly ministrations demanded. But this mode of traveling entailed much more expense, as they were obliged to keep a t least two horses.
Late in the fall of 1867, Father U. Grassi, came to Helena and remained through the winter.
The Fathers at the time had not yet commenced housekeeping, and took their means here and there, as best they could. Father Grassi was a man of fine, strong physique and endowed with unusual powers of endurance. He could live for months on
half a sack of flour and a few pounds of bacon, as he had done winter after winter on the Indian Missions. As a rule he was his own cook, and his repasts were like one of those arithmetical combinations that give always the same result; they consisted of pancakes and bacon, bacon and pancakes, and so on indefinitely. While in Helena he was offered free board at the St. Louis hotel by the proprietor, Neil Sullivan. But no invitation, however pressing and how often repeated, could induce the missionary to give up his customary fare. He had no relish for dainties and was quite content with "pea coffee and slapjacks" of his own making. His companions, however, whose constitutions and stomachs had been cast in more delicate moulds, were but too glad to accept and partake of the kind host's proffered hospitality.
It is also related of Father Grassi--and we have heard the story from himself more than once--that one day, as he was about to mount his horse, two men came up to him. Both had heard the Father speak on distractions in prayer the evening before, and now one of the pair made the remark that he did not see why people could not pray without being distracted; he himself had no distractions when he prayed. "Look here, sir," said Father Grassi to the man, "this horse is yours, if right now, on your honor, you will recite for me the Our father without letting your mind wander/" the man accepted the proposal and, assuming a devote attitude, began the prayer, but hopelessly gave himself away at once by asking, whether saddle and bridle did not go with horse, thus proving that things repeat themselves, because a similar incident is related in the if of St. Bernard.
With the opening of spring, Father Grassi left for the west side, to visit the Indian Missions. In the same spring Father Kuppens and Father Van Gorp exchanged places, the latter coming to Helena, and the former going to Virginia City.
It is much to be regretted that the labors of Father Kuppens in the far west were soon after brought to an end, as he recalled to his province during the summer. He proved himself an efficient and indefatigable worker, and became very popular among the miners by his remarkable dexterity in handling wild bronchos, as well as rust old simmers. His
departure was keenly felt by all who had become acquainted with him, and his memory is still fondly cherished by many an old-timer in the Boulder Valley and wherever he exercised missionary duty. Father F. X. Kuppens, S. J., may justly be called the first pastor of the Helena Church.
His recall brought Father D'Aste to Virginia City to replace him; and Father C. Imoda came now to Helena, not only to assist Father Van Gorp, but also to look after the affairs of St. Peter's Mission and to visit occasionally the Blackfeet Indians, until the mission could be re-opened.
In the meanwhile, Father Grassi had enabled the Fathers at Helena to begin housekeeping by providing them with a cook, Brother Pascal Megezzini, who arrived in the early part of summer. This excellent Brother lived in Helena a number of years and became not only a familiar figure, but a favorite with everybody who happened to come in contact with him. A remarkable trait of this industrious and exemplary Religious was that, while he never wasted a minute of time, being always occupied in some duty or other, he seemed if he was always ready to leave off the work on hand to render some extra service. the Brother was a good cook, far ahead of many so-called teachers of "domestic science," who despite their airs and far-fetched phraseology, an hardly cook properly and palatably a few potatoes.
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